A police constable cleaning a patrol car at Kingston, Surrey, in June 1953 was mildly surprised to find an axe under one of the front seats. He failed to connect it with the weapon being sought following the murder of two teenage girls at Teddington, Middlesex, a month earlier, and he put it in his locker to await anyone claiming it. Then he was off sick. On his return to duty five days later he took the axe home to chop wood.
The day before he found it the police had picked up a suspect at Weybridge. He was Alfred Whiteway, a 22-year-old labourer, and he had been a back-seat passenger in the patrol car. He had been arrested because he matched the description of a man wanted for two sexual assaults.
He was released after questioning, but on June 28th he was brought in again and identified by one of the assault victims, a middle-aged woman who had been attacked in Windsor Park. Whiteway was then charged with that assault, and also with the rape of a 14-year-old girl attacked on Oxshott Common.
Scotland Yards Detective Superintendent Herbert Hannam was investigating the two Teddington murders, and on hearing of Whiteways arrest he hurried to Chertsey police station to interview him. Whiteway had already been questioned inconclusively during the Teddington investigation because he lived near the victims.
They were Barbara Songhurst, 18, and her 16-year-old friend Christine Reed, and they had been attacked as they cycled home on the Thames towpath on the night of May 31st. Barbaras body had been found the next day in the river near Richmond, and Christines corpse had been recovered from the Thames five days later. Both had been stabbed, beaten about the head and raped.
Whiteway admitted committing the sexual assaults at Oxshott Common and Windsor Park, but denied responsibility for the two Teddington murders in which one of the weapons was believed to have been an axe.
He admitted having an axe, saying he kept it in a cupboard at his home, and Hannam told him the police had been there and no axe had been found.
Kingston Police have got it, said Whiteway. When I was in the police car I put it under the seat. When they picked me up I had tucked it in my shirt. In the car I was sitting in the back on my own, and I pushed the axe under the seat with my foot.
Hannam was appalled. Allowing a suspect to sit alone in the back of a police car was against one of the basic rules of officers training.
It took only minutes to trace the embarrassed constable who had taken the axe home, and who now produced it – covered with his own fingerprints.
But although it was now of little use as evidence, it still had a role to play. Questioning Whiteway again on July 30th, Hannam casually produced the axe from his briefcase and placed it on the table between them.
Blimey, thats it! Whiteway cried. Its been buggered about. It was sharp when I had it; I sharpened it with a file.
The superintendent then told Whiteway that laboratory tests had revealed heavy bloodstains on one of his shoes. Then he replaced the axe in his briefcase, his manner implying that that was that: everything was sewn up and there was little more to be said. Then he rose to leave, as if the interview had finished.
You know bloody well it was me! Whiteway cried. I didnt mean to kill em. I never meant to hurt anyone.
Then he made a statement which he signed. Its all up, he began. You know bloody well I done it. That shoes buggered me. What a bloody mess. Im mental. I must ave a bloody woman. I cant stop meself. Im not a bloody murderer.
He went on to confess to attacking and raping the two teenagers, saying he had killed them when he realised that one of them knew him. Put that bloody chopper away. It haunts yer, he concluded. What more do you want to know? Why dont the doctors do something? It will be mental, wont it? It must be. I cant stop it.
At his Old Bailey trial for Barbara Songhursts murder, however, he repudiated his confession and relied on an alibi to clear him. But the jury were unimpressed. They found him guilty, and he was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on DECEMBER 22nd, 1953.